Lessons in Uncertainty

Tom Przybelski, Contributor

In uncertain times, make deliberate choices, control what you can, and enjoy the moment.

The changes, at HBS, the local community, and the world more broadly, in response to the pandemic are unnerving. It is a time of increased, and still increasing, uncertainty. Everyone is making unexpected new choices while reassessing decisions that we thought were settled well in the past. While serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, I was regularly in new and uncertain situations around the world. Each deployment overseas was a fresh plunge into a new environment—whether that be living aboard ship for months, out of a pack among desert dunes, or in cities engulfed in violence. Through that experience—particularly five assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2013—I’ve learned a few lessons that keep me centered during times of uncertainty.

Make deliberate choices

  When times are normal, most of my daily choices involve little thought. My decisions seem mostly based on patterns that have worked in the past. In new and uncertain situations, I try to slow down and move decision-making up to the level of my values. I want to make decisions that I’ll be proud of later, and a values assessment gives me the framework to do that. To add specificity, I like the mental exercise of thinking about how I would explain my actions during a tough, confusing situation to someone in the future. Doing that pushes me to develop detailed thoughts that nest within my values. Military officers, by virtue of needing to make decisions involving significant risk, learn to “think backwards from the investigation.” Although it sometimes could be regarded as a dark joke among peers when things go wrong, it is a real tool. In making decisions under uncertainty, it can help to think about what questions a team of experts would ask about that situation and what answers you would want to have.  

On a deployment in Afghanistan, I was leading a team partnered with the headquarters for a 5,000-soldier Afghan unit. At the time, the number of Afghan soldiers unexpectedly killing partnered U.S. service members was at an all-time high. Many units were barring gates on shared camps, limiting interactions with Afghan counterparts, and meeting only in situations where it was possible to place guards in positions to shoot “partners” who became a threat. It was a time of increased uncertainty, and I needed to decide how to posture my team in response. Rather than separate, I chose to move closer, both physically and socially, to the Afghans we were working with. We moved our living and office areas closer to the elements of the headquarters we worked with and spent even more time drinking tea, sharing meals, and playing the occasional card game than before. That posture aligned with my values in dealing with partnered officers and soldiers in their country and in how I saw my mission. Realizing the risks we were taking, I also knew that I needed to be able to explain to my team and my chain of command that we would be safer and more effective following my plan rather than the more obvious route of separation. It helped to think through the types of tough questions I was going be asked to be able to build a stronger, safer, and more effective plan.

Control what you can control

In new environments and in times of uncertainty, I am more conscious of re-establishing routines that improve my resilience. Seeking eight hours of sleep and daily physical exercise are vital not just for the obvious health benefits but also for establishing a sense of normalcy in tough situations. I also find it helpful to build parts of the day that I can count on when other parts might be quite a bit more dangerous and confusing. During one assignment in Afghanistan for a year, each morning I swept the plywood deck and chairs in front of my team’s office tent, cleaned up the coffee area and made a pot, watered some plants I had adopted, and dusted the panels and performed a function check on the solar system that ran the office. It was a nice half hour and a series of events I could control. I’ve also learned to worry less about unnerving yet uncontrollable situations. In Iraq, living in a fortified house in the city of Fallujah during the Sunni Awakening of 2006, my unit was enmeshed in the daily cycle of violence sweeping the city. In the evenings, sitting on the back porch drinking tea, I sometimes heard the explosions and eruption of gunfire that would precede a ten- or fifteen-minute gunfight in a neighboring security sector. Occasionally, the tracers from an errant machine gun burst would arc gracefully over the city, letting me know more specifically whose area it was. If it were my sector there would be decisions to make and actions to take, but in other sectors there was nothing to be done. I knew the leaders of the other sectors, knew that they would handle their part of the war, and that, when it was my time, I would handle mine. 

Enjoy what you can enjoy

Controlling what can be controlled can be its own enjoyment, but it has also been important to me to try to live fully in whatever situation I am in. During times of stress and uncertainty, I have seen a lot of people turn inward, focus on a future where they are somewhere else, and harden themselves to their surroundings. I have also seen many spend all their unstructured time binge-watching shows or social-media-ing with people somewhere else. I’m not sure that any of those options are healthy. Living happens regardless of whether or not we’re in the situation we want to be in, and so I look for things in that environment that will be enjoyable. A meaningful conversation, a walk with a friend, and watching the sunset over the pink and gray dunes of southern Iraq or the stars come out over the city of Fallujah are all experiences to enjoy in that environment.

One of my favorite memories is of a patrol in the Hindu Kush mountain range in northeastern Afghanistan. The villages in the mountains are linked by well-cared-for paths and ancient stone stairways that wind and climb like a backpacker’s dream. Just being in that environment was exceptional. In particular, on that patrol, we stopped for a long time at a village that was a day’s walk from the nearest road. We sat on the porch of the village elder’s house, sharing the oranges we had brought and cups of his sugary tea. The first snow of the season was just starting. We looked out at the heavy flakes while talking about security in the area, his life, and the problems he was having in the village. It was magical and yet also a moment surrounded by war and uncertainty.  

Finally, when nothing else is working, there is Semper Gumby. Whereas Semper Fidelis—Latin for “always faithful”— is the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps, Marines often remind each other that Semper Gumby—not exactly Latin for “always flexible”—is more useful when times are changing.

Tom Przybelski (MBA ’21) is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and the U.S. Naval War College. Prior to HBS, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps for over 20 years as an infantry officer in locations world-wide including five combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.